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This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
It’s possible to make renewable energy accessible and affordable to low-income communities, according to a new report produced by Detroit-area nonprofit Soulardarity and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The report envisions the city of Highland Park, Michigan, offsetting all of its electricity use with renewable and clean energy, with residents exercising more control over their energy usage and sources than they do now.
With utility rates increasing, bills growing more unaffordable, and power outages occurring more frequently due to weakened grid systems and more intense storms, the report is helping to envision alternative solutions. But the solutions it offers would require drastic change to current policy.
The report, Let Communities Choose, illustrates how Highland Park — a city of about 9,000 people completely surrounded by Detroit — could be fully powered with community solar, rooftop solar, energy efficiency, distributed solar, and community water and energy resource centers in a way that would not only be affordable to the city’s low-income residents, but would relieve them of disproportionate energy costs. The scenario was modeled using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Hybrid Optimization of Multiple Energy Resources (HOMER) modeling tool.
Soulardarity Executive Director Shimekia Nichols told Planet Detroit that energy sovereignty is the answer to solving energy poverty in cities like Highland Park, where the median household income is $18,474 and residents spend 18% to 33% of their income on utilities.
Soulardarity defines energy sovereignty as “the ability of communities and individuals to choose the forms, scales, and sources of the energy they use.”
“Energy democracy is just a way of saying that ratepayers have a voice too,” Nichols said. “Subject matter experts are not just utility CEOs and major solar installation companies. It includes ratepayers, local installers, churches, schools, students. It includes us all. And so we want to make sure that those conversations include community input at all levels of decision making.”
The idea that renewable energy cannot be affordable is one of the misconceptions Soulardarity and the Union of Concerned Scientists wanted to clarify in the report.
“DTE Energy continues to misinform the community of solar being inaccessible and unaffordable for low-income and moderate-income families,” Nichols said.
Community and rooftop solar “pay for themselves over time,” said James Gignac, a senior Midwest energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the report. “The real challenge is getting the upfront capital or investment funding to be able to install the equipment to make the energy efficiency upgrades in people’s homes and businesses.”
That upfront capital could come from existing programs like Michigan Saves or on-bill financing, in which a city could help fund solar and other projects and then customers could pay that back over time.
At the state level, efforts to enable community solar and eliminate rooftop solar caps are among some of the initiatives Michigan lawmakers are supporting that could help advance the vision.
Soulardarity and other advocates hope to use the report to influence state lawmakers.
“When you say something, you need that data to back it up for people to really get an understanding that this is something that’s possible,” said Gracie Wooten, an “energy and water warrior” and longtime resident and advocate in Highland Park. “So even though we have [solar projects] going on right now, it could be helped if there were changes in policies by the state, and also by Highland Park, that could actually make something that we already understand can be a reality, actually happen.”
The report also details how more favorable energy policies could reduce the return on investment time for solar installations, such as true net metering and residential energy credits. Proposed policy changes would lift current restrictions on solar development under Michigan law, increase compensation for solar developers and subscribers, and require stronger energy efficiency policies.
Action at the local level is needed too. Wooten and other Highland Park residents are advocating for a city sustainability commission to help advance a clean energy ordinance in Highland Park.
“One of the steps that the city government could take as part of a clean energy ordinance could be to establish a 100% goal, and then have benchmarks along the way towards meeting that,” Gignac said.
The report proposes local measures that the city could undertake, such as enacting a comprehensive solar ordinance, setting local clean energy benchmarks, building city-owned community solar and more.
Soulardarity has been working to make Highland Park more self-sufficient since DTE repossessed its streetlights in 2011, leaving most of the city’s residential streets in the dark. The nonprofit, along with other clean energy groups in Highland Park such as Avalon Village, Parker Village, and Ryter Cooperative Industries, have been promoting clean energy and energy democracy for more than a decade. Nichols is looking forward to the future of clean energy in her city.
“We’ll also see connections to be able to grow jobs and support a new wave of labor in Highland Park. And so that was the backbone of why we did this report,” she said. “At the end of the day, we need to see unification and solidarity.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Gracie Wooten’s last name.